Chick Lit

There are reasons to write about chicks rightnow. Firstly, we had five hatched a fortnight back and they are cute. Secondly, I have to get in quick and write fast. Chicks don’t hang around long. Thirdly, we now have a sixth called Twiglet, a surprise hatching that has not gone so well.

Twiglet – chicken doesn’t come much fresher than that


There is a special quality to chicks that I somehow forget, and have to relearn every year – everything about them goes from zero to fast in an eye-blink. Somewhere, in the small-print of their DNA, is the need to do everything exponentially.

The Fast Food Five

Newly hatched, they toddle about and cheep frantically if the enveloping warmth of Mum is gone for more than a few seconds. At that time, it’s easy to pick them up, look them in the beak and go Ahhhh. Cute.

Now blink. They’re a few days old. They still cheep, but toddle has become zoom. Catching them is still possible, but it takes two, and a corner to herd them into, because all that speed is delivered in three dimension. And zoom itself is exponential – stationary to zipping between your fingers in an eye-blink…

For the first day or two, they hardly eat anything. Then Mum introduces them to feed pellets, and they swallow a few. Now blink. A few days old, and pellets are sucked down, a whole can-full in a day. And then a can-and-a-half… and then, before you know it, the ongoing zoom demands a continual stoking. The only thing that stops them is a sudden collision with adulthood.
Wait for me…

I now have a routine established, get them up in the morning, provide breakfast, then lunch, supper and put them to bed. Over the next week or two, the number of meals will increase, but the general routine stays the same. Except for yesterday morning when there was a surprise waiting for me under a hopeless hen we call Carnival.
Last year, she gave us the Brooding Look, aggressively sat some eggs and failed to hatch anything. In January, she did the same, and then refused to stop being broody and took over a pair of stray eggs. (It’s amazing how eggs can run off like that.) Much to my surprise, when she came off the nest to eat yesterday morning, there was a chick poking its beak out of a hole in one egg and going cheep very loudly.
I picked it up, as you might, and realised that it was in trouble. The whole hatching cycle had got hung up and the inner membrane on the egg had dried out, making it too tough for the chick to tear. I did the necessary, peeling off enough shell to get it going and then had to hang around whilst Carnival ate breakfast. That ought to have been a serious red flag – hatching, cheeping chicks normally mean that the broody absolutely refuses to leave the nest.
I went back after breakfast, just for a quick look, and Twiglet had been ejected from the nest. I thought it was dead, but when I picked it up there was a hint of movement in the legs, which can just be a post-mortem spasm, but might just mean it was still alive. On the off-chance, I cupped the chick in my hands and went to tell my partner.
Twiglet, an hour old and in trouble

There is a routine for this as well. When we used to raise geese, the goslings were hell-bent on suicide from the moment they hatched, escaping from under the goose, wandering from the nest and then getting cold until they died. However, just like all those crime dramas with a frozen body, they’re not dead until they’re warm and dead. With goslings, which are chunky and robust, we used to sit on the sofa and stuff them down inside our jumpers; for the chick it was time for a box with a hot-water bottle wrapped in a towel.

Mummy, what small feathers you have

By the time the kettle was hot and a suitable box picked out, Twiglet was already warmed up enough just by my hands to be kicking. After half an hour nestled down in the box, there was indignant cheeping, and after another half hour, silence – the sound effects sequence for the transition from almost-dead to alive-but-it’s-chilly-here to warm-and-cosy.

That’s the easy bit. Now we have a box set up in the bathroom (showers will be tricky for the next week or two) with a heat lamp to keep Twiglet warm. There’s no guarantees, but it’s alive, and it’s kicking, so there is a fair chance. If only we could trust Carnival to look after it.
There. I’ve written about chicks. Now it’s time to feed them again.

Cheep And Cheerful

Tuesday
I took a final round of the chicken shed on Tuesday evening. 17:45 Cornish Foggy Time. Strictly, it might not have been fog – we get a certain amount of meteorological identity theft here. Big, lazy clouds that have hung around over the moor drift our way and can’t be bothered to keep above eight hundred feet. It doesn’t matter – fog or cloud, after dark the chickens are all quiet. The perfect time to lift the lid on Leopard Neck’s nest box and just listen.
Leopard Neck is a spotty hen, and the second to be given the name. Unlike many of our hen names, it still makes sense, because she has mottled neck feathers. We have another hen called Dark Penguin who looks nothing like a penguin, except for the first couple weeks when she was a black bundle of fluff with a white bib. Now she’s a mottled brown hen with attitude. So Leopard Neck, in the box, doing the low growling rattle that says go away, I’m broody.
On Tuesday morning, Leopard Neck came out and did the usual broody hen routine, grab whatever food she could, make loud clucking noises, and drop a breath-stopping pile of poo, before rushing back to sit on her eggs. A mere nine hours later, in the evening, in the dark, I heard cheeping. There was no way to tell how many voices, but this was perfect timing, spot on the notional twenty-one days for hen’s eggs to hatch.

Wednesday
On Wednesday morning, we went to take a proper look. Hatching time is a bit of a balancing act – the hen and chicks know what they’re doing, so it’s best not to interfere. On the other hand, things do go wrong – an egg in the wrong position, or caught up inside the empty shell from an early-starter. So, I reached under and pulled out each egg for inspection, and disposed of the empties.
As of 09:30 Cornish Rainy Time we knew that at least two had hatched, that another had made the first break in the shell, and that one of the chicks was pale yellow. Then it was time to walk away and leave them to it.

It’s too early in the morning for a photo-call

Mid-afternoon, we went back to check progress once more and Leopard Neck grumbled something which loosely translates as go away. Instead, I had another reach under and removed more empties. It turns out that as of 16:00 Cornish Hail Time, we had five out of eight hatched, and they were cute.
Is anyone else still under there?

OK, that’s not really news. Chicks are always cute. Just like lambs, goslings… in fact pretty much anything newly born around the farm is cute. So it’s not news – just enjoy the cute, the sense of the new year really getting started.
Thursday
In the dim and distant past – at least four years ago – we would open the nest box and let Leopard Neck get on with the business of leading her chicks out to explore the world. These days we have young, vigorous hunting cats always on the look-out for a bite-sized chicken nugget. So, rather than the outside world, they get the greenhouse and a fresh nest box, just until the chicks know how to keep up with Mum.
It’s easy enough to do. Catch the chicks one by one and put them in a big flower pot. (Give it another day or two and they would be too fast.) Then pick up a very grumpy broody hen and carry the whole set round to the greenhouse to decant into the new nest box.

It’s going to be so much easier if we all go round the same way.

Job done. Hen and chicks in their new home. Stand back and enjoy the cuteness.

Yes, fine, but where is the en-suite?

What could be better? It’s February today, the days are getting longer, and our first chicks are hatched and doing well. It’s enough to make anyone cheerful.